GOP senators alarmed after classified Iraq briefing

Several Republican senators who attended a classified briefing on Iraq from administration and military officials on Tuesday warned the threat from a Sunni extremist group to the homeland is growing by the day, and that the U.S. has little time to act. 

“When I spoke about this last two days ago, this was an urgent counterterrorism risk to the United States, and now it becomes more so,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters after the briefing. “It's a rapidly deteriorating situation.” 

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Several Democratic senators declined to comment on the briefing, citing that it was classified, but several Republicans who talked to reporters gave a dire assessment of what would happen if the U.S. does not help Iraq beat back an onslaught from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said ISIS’s goal was to create an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, and drive the U.S. out of the region by striking the U.S. at home. 

“No member of the Senate could have left that briefing believing that the homeland is not in danger if these people are successful, so I don't think you're going to hear much pushback if the president has to act,” he said.

“There was no doubt in any body's mind who briefed us that, eventually, the people who are  trying to conquer Iraq and make it an Islamic caliphate … is trying to drive us out of the Mideast, and they see us as an impediment to their agenda, and they will hit us at home," he added. 

The briefers included Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson, the Joint Staff’s Director for Strategic Plans and Policy Navy Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, Assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin, and a representative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The senators expressed worry that Jordan, one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the region, and host to a large presence of U.S. military assets, could be ISIS’s next goal. 

“We have to continue to be concerned not no longer simply about what's happening in Iraq, but the risk that it poses to Jordan and, by extension, other countries in the region as well,” Rubio said.

“It’s clear to me that these guys, if not stopped in Iraq, are going to go into Jordan,” Graham said. “If Jordan falls, if Jordan becomes a fractured, failed state, it's a nightmare for Israel, it's a nightmare for us, from a national security perspective. At all cost, we must defend Jordan.” 

The White House is contemplating its next steps in Iraq, including airstrikes, after ordering up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to get an assessment of the situation on the ground, and to better develop targets should air strikes be necessary. 

Graham said the U.S. should wait until Iraq forms a new government before any U.S. airstrikes there, to avoid taking the side of the Shia-dominated government against Sunnis. 

“I don't want to send American air power that would be seen as the Shia air force. I want to send American air power in the aid of a government of the center in Iraq,” he said. 

However, he recommended striking ISIS in Syria, where he said targets are easier to identify, in order to hurt the group’s advance in Baghdad. 

Rubio agreed and recommended the U.S. strike ISIS supply lines, and command and control structure in Syria. He and Graham said they believed the president did not need Congress’s permission to act. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the U.S. should strike identified targets in Iraq now. 

“You can spot from the air convoys of these people moving in open terrain," he said. 

"That doesn't mean you bomb them in a refinery, but you can identify and take them out and for us to ‘assess the situation’ as the continued flood of successes ... that the ISIS are enjoying is a very, very dangerous enterprise,” he added. 

The Pentagon said Tuesday that the first teams of military advisers have started assessing the situation in Iraq and would complete their assessment within two to three weeks. 

McCain said the U.S. might not have the time to wait. 

“Look at the map of Iraq two weeks ago and then, if the ISIS enjoys the same success, what will it be like two weeks from now?”